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Friday, November 8, 2013

Confessions of a Bibliophile

It is not something that I recognized right away.  Growing up, my yearnings seemed normal to me.  But that shouldn't surprise anyone.  That is the way these things develop.  You feel an attraction to something that seems perfectly normal to you, and as you gratify your desires, and you become more comfortable indulging in them, you begin to equate joy with your particular object of desire.  And that's how a young boy from the heartland grew up to be so obsessed with books.

Sure, coming into my home as an outsider, you would recognize this dysfunctional behavior immediately.  You'd simply look to the left and the right, spot the stacks of books that line the walls and cover the furniture (all of which does not include the shelves full of books) and say to yourself "what a sick, sick, man.  Doesn't he know there are programs that can help him out of this private hell?"  Then, when you realize I've raised five children in this atmosphere, you'll add this addendum: "not such a private hell!  Here's hoping he hasn't warped these kids for the rest of their lives!"

But take a step back, realize that no matter how obvious this addiction is to you, it has never been obvious from my perspective.  Back in the 1970's, before any real awareness of electronic media alternatives (yes, television had emerged as a healthy counterpoint to the unsavory habit of reading, but it had not yet won over a super-majority of society at that point), it was considered perfectly normal that an old, converted city bus would creak its way into our little town on the Illinois prairie and wheeze to a stop next to our little IGA grocery store.  Mind you, this was just a block from our house.  My mother, bless her heart, saw nothing sinister in allowing us children to don our stocking caps and stuff ourselves into our wool coats as we ran down the street to clamber aboard the Bookmobile.  (I was under the age of five!  A mere babe in the wood...on a treeless prairie, no less!)  Just that name—The Bookmobile—you know it was designed to lure children into its crowded passages, full of colorful, worn books, all of them suffused with the odors of a million aging pages pasted to hardback covers with crusty, yellow paste; pages that had been pored over by thousands of other bibliophiles from hundreds of other small towns identical to our own.  One can easily see how yet another obsession of mine germinated in the suffocating shell of that ancient bus—my germaphobia.  That old Bookmobile would sneak into town during the day and every homemaking mother would encourage her innocent children to check out books from its jam-packed shelves.  I often wonder, did our fathers even know this thing existed?  Were they aware of its book-peddling influences on our provincial, pastoral lives?  I doubt it.  One can only imagine how the men of that town would have snatched their shotguns down from their fireplace mantels and chased that asthmatic motorcoach into the surrounding cornfields, eventually shooting out its flabby tires.  I'm sure with a little help from a few of the local farmers, that old bus would never have been seen again.  Just think of how that might have saved me from a lifetime of bibliophilia.

But the bookmobile was never hunted down and murdered by the men of our small town.  And as the years passed, I never did purge myself of the bookworm that had nested deep inside me.  And as I grew in stature and age, so did that serpent within.  By the time I was in high school, I was maintaining a small library of no little significance.  Of course, I married a bibliophiliac.  Neither one of us was aware of our literary disorder, though we must have been subconsciously drawn to each other.  She accepted my library as hers, mixing it with her own peculiar affection for reading.  Her own addiction was for a much more ancient form of reading.  Thus began my experimentation with the hard stuff: books that had been around for centuries, books that normal people instinctively keep out of their homes.

While I've overcome my shame enough to admit these things, it is still hard to confess what inevitably came next.  It is not easy to admit that we actively drew our children into this world of words and ideas.  Sure, young parents make the simple mistake of reading a few, light verse children's books to their beeblets when the little tykes need something to lull them to sleep.  But parents can be forgiven this indiscretion, since these youths are far too young to be affected by such incidental contact with books.  However, we didn't stop there.  We continued to read to our children, even as they matured enough to understand what we were reading them.  We would read with passion, acting out the actions of the characters, developing elaborate and memorable voices for the dialog, shaking the children to make sure they did not fall asleep before the story had come to an end.  We would leave the books lying around, and never scolded the kids when they were found sitting in a corner of the room, gazing at some book's illustrations without permission.

Children raised under the shadow of books.
All of this occurred, mind you, during the 1990's and the 2000's, as most children in our society had been freed of traditional book-reading habits by the advent of Gameboys, the Cartoon Network, AOL Instant Messenger, and Myspace.  The rise of digital media meant we had no excuse for our actions.  Yet we continued to buy books, filling our home with stacks and stacks of Hardy Boys Mysteries, Choose-Your-Own-Adventures, and Great Illustrated Classics.  Stuck in our own reading quagmire, we gleefully dragged our children down with us.

But this story ends with a little hope...of sorts.  Though I've not yet had a road-to-Damascus epiphany, I have begun to see our book habit for what it is; this blog post is a painful yet important first step on the road to recovery.  I've begun throwing our books out.  Not a complete purge, mind you, I'm just taking baby steps for now.  But they are steps, nonetheless.  I've been able to toss out not only books I've already read, but even a  few I had hoped to read again.  More importantly, I've been able to take that most difficult of steps; admitting that a few of the books I bought are books I'll never read.  They've taken up space in the house for decades, and it takes real courage to say "this book looked interesting back in 1994, and it was a steal at $3.99 from the Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller mail order paper, but I haven't read it in nineteen years, and I know in my heart I'm never going to sit down and read the darned thing."  I know.  I just went from talking about baby steps to taking Goliath steps.  Like I said, this story contains a little hope.  And if I can throw out a book like My Summer in Alaska (One man's struggle to survive in the Alaskan Wilderness) and admit that it is no great loss for me, then maybe someone else out there can do the same, and together we'll all take those baby steps, Goliath steps, and all those steps in between as we break free from our obsession with books.

Now, if only Amazon would quit selling so many eBooks for just $1.99.  But that's an addiction to conquer at a later date.

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